Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Much of the commentary on “Kubla Khan” has focused on the influence of Coleridge’s addiction to opium, on its dreamlike qualities, the “anodyne” he refers to in his preface, but no conclusive connection between the two can be proved. Considerable criticism has also dealt with whether the poem is truly, as Coleridge claimed, a fragment of a spontaneous creation. The poet’s account of the unusual origin of his poem is probably only one of numerous instances in which one of the Romantic poets proclaimed the spontaneity or naturalness of their art. Most critics of “Kubla Khan” believe that its language and meter are too intricate for it to have been created by the fevered mind of a sleeping poet. Others say that its ending is too fitting for the poem to be a fragment.

Other contentions about “Kubla Khan” revolve around its meanings (or lack thereof). Some critics, including T. S. Eliot in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), have claimed the poem has no veritable meaning. Such analysts say its method and meaning are inseparable: The poem’s form is its only meaning. For other commentators, “Kubla Khan” is clearly an allegory about the creation of art. As the artist decided to create his work of art, so does Kubla Khan decide to have his pleasure-dome constructed. The poem’s structure refutes Coleridge’s claim about its origins, since the first thirty-six lines describe what Kubla has ordered built, and the last eighteen lines deal with the narrator’s desire to approximate the creation of the pleasure-dome.

Xanadu is an example of humanity imposing its will upon nature to create a vision of paradise, since the palace is surrounded by an elaborate park. That the forests are “ancient as the hills” makes the imposing of order upon them more of a challenge. Like a work of art, Xanadu results from an act of inspiration and is a “holy and enchanted” place. Within this man-decreed creation are natural creations such as the river that bursts from the earth. The origin of Alph is depicted almost in sexual terms, with the earth breathing “in fast thick pants” before ejaculating the river, a “mighty fountain,” in an explosion of rocks. The sexual imagery helps reinforce the creation theme of “Kubla Khan.”

Like Kubla’s pleasure-dome, a work of art is a “miracle of rare device,” and the last paragraph of the poem depicts the narrator’s desire to emulate Kubla’s act through music. As with Kubla, the narrator wants to impose order on a tumultuous world. Like Xanadu, art offers a refuge from the chaos. The narrator, as with a poet, is inspired by a muse, the Abyssinian maid, and wants to re-create her song. The resulting music would be the equivalent “in air” of the pleasure-dome. As an artist, the narrator would then stand apart from a society that fears those who create, those who have “drunk the milk of Paradise.”